Looking for answers on Ellesmere Island

Jerry Kobalenko wants to know why he and so many others have risked their skins to go there


If you can’t understand why anyone would be crazy enough to drag a sledge across the ice in -40 C temperatures for days at a time — when it’s not even a matter of survival — Jerry Kobalenko’s new book about Ellesmere Island, The Horizontal Everest is for you.

Kobalenko, a Canadian photographer and journalist who’s logged thousands of cold kilometers trekking across Ellesmere, admits he’s obsessed with the place.

“It’s easy to fall in love with a place, but it’s what you have in common that sustains the relationship,” he writes. “Ellesmere’s physical beauty, its cold, its nontechnical terrain, its isolation, its tolerant wildlife, its 24-hour sunshine, its unwalked expanses, its alien flavour, all felt like a purer form of my own inner geography.”

However, Kobalenko isn’t an easy guy to love. He loves Ellesmere, and it would be fun to talk to him about the island, but you probably wouldn’t want to take a trip with him. His book contains many stories of how he can’t get along with his travel companions — even his now-ex-wife.

“My exuberance oppressed her and made her feel conservative by comparison … she wanted kids, which meant that the household needed one full-time breadwinner, and neither of us volunteered.”

Kobalenko tries to see why he’s so fixated on Ellesmere, and examines 13 reasons that motivate explorers, such as the spice of danger, the lure of fame, fortune, and so on.

Kobalenko decides raw energy propels his personal obsession — but it’s clear he’d also like to be ranked up there with the great Arctic explorers.

In Ellesmere, Kobalenko is constantly looking for signs of the explorers’ passage — notes, cairns and campsites. He ends up more than once on bleak Pim Island where he soaks in its “haunted house creepiness.”

There, Kobalenko explores the remains of a hut where members of the first U.S. scientific expedition to Ellesmere suffered a slow death from starvation more than 100 years ago.

“Tragedy had invested each item of century-old junk with an intense poignancy,” he writes.

Kobalenko’s journeys on Ellesmere may be extreme, but his descriptions of its scenery are generally sparse. He’s more likely to share information of a practical nature, gleaned from his own experiences and reading — such as how musk oxen gather in groups of 11 or multiples of 11 animals.

Kobalenko tells of an encounter with an unfriendly polar bear.

“The fear hit afterwards. I realized that I had no control over when a polar bear might strike … for years afterwards I slept like a seal on Ellesmere, waking every hour to look out of the tent for something off-white and moving.”

Kobalenko’s descriptions are seldom poetic, but they often hit the mark — as when he describes Resolute Bay, the starting point of most treks to Ellesmere.

“Resolute is like Las Vegas: impossible to impress no matter how much money you throw away … Resolute could be so disheartening and humiliating that I would return home never wanting to go north again. Yet, like cold, fatigue, high winds and partners from hell, I soon forgot about Resolute and remembered only Ellesmere.”

Much of the historical information in Kobalenko’s book is obscure — and, as a result, it’s a more interesting and less boring read than average.

He writes about a murder in 1970 on T-3, a research station located on an ice island off Ellesmere, involving a couple of very drunk and angry researchers. He also recounts the apparent murder of Peeawahto, a Greenlandic Inuk, by a panicked British explorer in 1914.

While retracing the explorers’ steps, Kobalenko seems to find that many were unhinged. Perhaps Kobalenko’s own trips to Ellesmere are an attempt to reassure himself that he’s not quite like them, after all.

With all the weirdness and discomfort Kobalenko manages to dredge up, you probably won’t be eager to plunk down $20,000 for a charter flight north out of Resolute, but at least you’ll have a first-hand appreciation of why trekkers like Kobalenko migrate toward Ellesmere Island — what he calls the “Arctic Bermuda Triangle” — every spring.

The Horizontal Everest: Extreme Journeys on Ellesmere Island by Jerry Kobalenko. ISBN: 0670894346. $35.00/272 pp. Penguin Books Canada.

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